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Car Care Basics

I make it a practice to scan the various automotive forums and social media platforms.  It is a great way to determine trends in the automotive industry and to see what’s on the minds of car enthusiasts.  The following comment keeps surfacing from first-time car owners:

“I’m about to buy my first car, and I want to learn how to take care of it.”

I applaud anyone who is brave enough to post that question on social media.  Too many responders take a cheap shot at these newcomers, belittling them for not already having that knowledge.  I try to jump in and start them down the path of knowledge, but it is a big topic.  Too big of a topic to respond with a paragraph or two.

This topic deserves more discussion, and there are many things a car owner can do on their own to ensure their car stays healthy.  Timely, regular maintenance will ensure a long life for your car.

Listed below are the key tasks to maintaining a happy, healthy car.  I am listing them in order of complexity, with the easiest ones first.

owners manual for a car

The Owner’s Manual

The best place to start is by locating the owner’s manual for your car.  If you bought your car new, it should be in the glovebox.  If you bought it used, hopefully the previous owner left you this important book.

This is the least read book in the world, which is too bad.  The owner’s manual is an excellent reference for the operation and care for your specific car.  It can help you do everything from operating the headlights, understanding the various warning lights to recommended maintenance.

If you have not already done so, take the plastic wrap off this priceless journal and get acquainted with it!

Keep it Clean

Proper cleaning of your car–on the inside and out–will make it look new throughout its life.  It amazes me how many people who keep a spotless home will neglect their next biggest expense, their car.  

If you clean it on a regular basis, this is an easy and rewarding task.  If not, then you should plan  to spend several hours undoing the neglect you subjected your car to (yes, I am judging you!).  As an alternative, you can pay a car detailer to do it for you.  Plan to spend $200+ to get a car fully detailed.

I follow The Detail Geek on YouTube.  He tackles some of the nastiest cars, but is able to transform them to like new conditions.  If you want to get inspired, check out a sample of his work HERE.

man washing a car

Exterior Wash

You have two ways to go here…you can take your car to a car wash or wash it yourself at home.  The preference is to do it at home, as some professional car washes can cause scratches to your paint.  Doing it yourself is both rewarding and potentially better for your car.

Frequency:  Twice per month (recommended); Once a week (preferred)

Cost:  $10+ at a professional car wash; pennies per wash at home.

I live in Michigan, so winter months make it miserable to be washing outside.  If the temperatures are above 55 degrees, I will wash at home.  In those nasty winter months, I have an excellent soft-cloth car wash nearby that does a great job without damaging the paint.  They even provide an underbody rinse that helps flush the winter slush and salt from the chassis.

For more details on how to hand wash a car, including materials to use click HERE.

Waxing

Washing your car on a regular basis is very important for removing road grime and environmental fallout.  Now it is time to protect your paint’s finish and make that clean paint really shine.

Frequency:  Two times per year (recommended); once per month (preferred)

Cost:  $10+ per bottle of wax (good for 4-6 cars)

Opinions vary on the proper method and material to use to wax your car.  One of the leading wax manufacturers, Turtle Wax, provides a nice overview HERE.

Interior

If you start with a clean interior, regular upkeep is a breeze!  It starts with treating your car’s interior like it is your den.  Keep it orderly, free of trash and vacuumed on a regular basis.

Frequency:  Once per week

Cost:  Free (if done weekly);  $100+ for a detailer to bring your neglected interior back to life

I shot a video with interior cleaning tips in March 2020.  Go HERE to see that video.

man changing air filter in car

Air Filter Replacement

Your engine needs three things to run:  fuel, spark (ignition) and air.  It is important to keep the air entering your engine’s intake free of contaminants.  That is the job of the air filter.

Over time, your air filter will collect enough dirt, dust and debris to actually restrict the air flow into the engine, when this happens, your engine runs poorly or not at all.  

Frequency: Generally every 12,000 to 15,000 miles (check the owner’s manual)

Cost:  $10 – 30 (AutoZone. O’Reilly’s or Amazon.com)

This is one of the easiest jobs to tackle, and typically involves opening the air filter housing found on or near the top of your engine, pulling out the dirty filter and installing a new one.  This can be done in under 10 minutes.

Your owner’s manual will show you how to perform this task

Tires

The main functions of a vehicle’s tires include supporting the vehicle load, transmitting traction and braking forces to the road surface, absorbing road shocks, and changing and maintaining the direction of travel. 

Tires need good tread for better traction during these harsh conditions.  Two tasks ensure a comfortable, safe ride and longevity:

Tire Pressure

Checking the pressure of air in your tires (measured in pounds per square inch–PSI) is easy and has a huge return on investment.  Low tire pressure can shorten the life of your car’s tires, negatively affect your vehicle’s performance and ride quality, and maybe even cause a tire to fail.   High tire pressure will cause a harsh ride and cause uneven tire wear.  Check your tire pressure!

The recommended tire pressure for your car can be found on a label affixed to an area on the door jamb or edge of the door on the driver’s side. See the example below:

tire pressure label on car

Frequency:  Twice per month

Cost:  FREE (after you buy a tire gauge, like this one at Amazon)

tire pressure procedure chart

Keep in mind, your tire pressure will change 1 PSI for each 10 degrees of temperature change.  If your tires were properly inflated at 70 degrees and the temperature decreased to 40 degrees, you just lost 3 PSI of tire pressure.

Tire Rotation

Even if your tire pressure remains constant, the tires on the front of your car do a lot more work than the rears.  They carry the weight of the engine and need to steer the car.  In order to get the most life out of your tires, they should be rotated (moved) from the front to the rear (and vice versa) on a regular basis.  

In some cases, they also need to be swapped from one side of the car to the other.  Guess where you can learn which rotation is right for your car?  If you answered “the owner’s manual!” then let me know.  I have a special gift for you.

Frequency:  Every 6,000 miles

Cost:  Free (if you do it yourself); under $20 at a tire store

One of my favorite sources for tires and wheels (tirerack.com) offers this detail on how to rotate your tires.

engine oil cap

Engine Oil

If you do nothing else in this article, be sure to check and change your oil!  Oil is the lifeblood of your engine and ignoring it will cost you big money and inconvenience.  Guaranteed.

Engines have many moving parts that generate heat as the engine runs.  Oil lubricates all of those parts so that they spin/move freely.  Less friction = less heat = long life.  Let’s talk about two important tasks related to engine oil:  checking and changing your oil.

Checking Oil Level 

Maintaining the correct amount of oil in your engine is crucial to engine function.  Much like drinking enough water to stay hydrated, your engine needs enough oil to keep moving.  

Frequency:  Every 1,000 miles (preferably each time you fill your gas tank)

Cost:  FREE (about 5 minutes of your time)

Most engines have a simple device to give you a quick reading of the oil level:  the DIPSTICK.

hand pulling dipstick from engine.

The dipstick is a long blade that has a yellow or red handle on the end, making it easy to find when you open your hood.  When your engine is cold (or not running for more than 5 minutes), pull the dipstick out to see where the oil level sits on the scale shown on the dipstick.

dipstick showing maximum and minimum level marks

Dipsticks will have two marks toward the end.  This shows the minimum and maximum levels of oil that should be in the engine.  This example shows that the level of oil on the dipstick is within the acceptable range.  

Some manufacturers (especially European) have abandoned the dipstick in favor of an oil level sensor that displays the oil level within your instrument panel.  I’m not a fan of those, but I guess that is progress!

Changing Your Oil 

In addition to maintaining the proper level of oil in your engine, making sure the oil is free of contaminants and fresh will keep your engine running for a long time.  

Oil lubricating effectiveness breaks down with usage.  As your engine wears, it may begin to consume oil.  This is why it is important to drain the oil from the engine, remove the oil filter, add new oil and a new filter.

Frequency:  Every 5,000 miles (even if your manufacturer recommends a higher interval)

Cost:  $40 (DIY);  $40 – 100 at at dealership or other service facility

When possible, I prefer to change the oil myself.  I get a lot of satisfaction from the task and it allows me to check other things under my car.  If you want to learn how to do this, Mobil has a nice description HERE.

Note: You need the proper tools and equipment to safely change your own oil.  It involves raising your vehicle high enough to be able to access the drain plug and filter, found under the car.  You also have to dispose of the old oil.  Most auto parts stores like AutoZone and O’Reilly’s will take your old oil for free.

Many dealerships will provide specials for oil changes that also include a tire rotation for $40-50.  This is a great deal and makes financial sense vs. DIY.  Check out your dealer’s website for service specials.

I highly recommend you do NOT go to one of those “instant oil change” places.  I don’t trust their technicians to do a quality job and they are not always reasonably priced.  Either DIY or take it to a dealership.

Longer Term Tasks 

As your car ages or if you just bought a car with higher miles, there will be other services needed.  Be sure to check your owner’s manual to determine which services are required for your car at different mileage intervals. 

When in doubt, check the website for your car’s manufacturer.  Many times, they have an owner’s section with maintenance details.  If not, consult a dealership or other reputable service facility.  

I hope this information helped you understand the basics of car care.  As you can see, there are many things you can do on your own to keep your car looking great and running well for a long time.  Between your owner’s manual and some of the sources I cited here, you should be on the road to successful car care.

Good luck, and let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below.

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